Clinton Focuses on Female Bonding

WASHINGTON — The most viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history is building what amounts to a separate organization devoted to winning women's votes. As she pursues the Democratic nomination, the scale of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's outreach appears unprecedented.

Monday night, 400 women plan to hold house parties to watch the Democratic candidates debate — twice as many parties as women had for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama on June 24.

Clinton has six full-time staffers for women's outreach, an unusual number six months before primaries begin. Former senator John Edwards has one full-time staffer.

Several candidates have national women's networks, but Clinton's started earlier and has many fronts.

Her campaign has special groups for nurses, businesswomen, minority women, New Yorkers, young women and graduates of Wellesley, Clinton's alma mater. It is courting female politicians and activists and other women with their own networks, such as book clubs and breast cancer groups.

Ann Lewis, the senior Clinton adviser in charge of outreach to women, says the campaign will focus on single women this fall. The non-partisan group Women's Voices, Women Vote found that more than 18 million single women are eligible to vote but unregistered. In 2004, the group said, almost 5 million were registered but didn't vote.

Clinton leads all national polls of the Democratic field. She had 45% of the women's vote, vs. 41% overall, in an aggregate of seven USA TODAY/Gallup polls from April 2 to July 8. She did best among women over 65, at 49%, and worst among women 18-29, at 39%.

Obama comes closest to Clinton's organizational efforts. Like Clinton, he has state and county-level networks in early states. He also has a women's policy committee and five regional fundraisers.

Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Edwards have high-profile roles promoting their husbands. Elizabeth Edwards said of Clinton in Salon, an online magazine, "I'm not convinced she'd be as good an advocate for women" as John Edwards. That led former president Bill Clinton to say on ABC that no one has "a longer history of working for women, for families and children, than Hillary does."

Jennifer Donahue, a political analyst at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., says Clinton draws big crowds of women but not all are on board. "Female voters want to check her out," she says. "Whether they want to support her or not, they want to see her in person."